The Howard League for Penal Reform

Suicide in prison and the government’s response

You might have noticed that public ministerial responses to Howard League research and publications have been less than measured recently. Sometimes, it has to be said, ministerial pronouncements have verged on the bizarre and erroneous. We have tried not to respond in kind and we have let pass some of the more emotional outbursts. However, comments from ministers today concerning the deaths of people in prison are a step too far.

Eighty-two men and women, some as young as 18, took their own lives in prison last year and that is more people dying by their own hand than in the previous year – a year which itself saw a sharp increase on the years before it. Arguably once the state takes away your freedom it should care for you properly. You no longer have the freedom to choose how you deal with stress, depression, anxiety, bullying or a tragic event. You cannot go for a walk, and often cannot even cry because you are seen as weak and therefore a target. I will never forget the mother of an 18-year-old who hanged himself in Leeds prison telling me that she knew her boy had problems but at least she thought he would be safe when he went to prison.

It is not good enough for prison ministers to say that the Howard League is using misleading figures. Our figures come from the ministry. I sit on the ministerial board that oversees government strategy for preventing deaths in all forms of custody. The charity only uses official statistics.

It is not good enough for prison ministers to claim that we are using suicide statistics for our own campaigning purposes. Of course we are campaigning to end deaths in custody, it would be strange if we didn’t. It is downright insulting for a prison minister who has only been in post for a few months to allege that the Howard League, founded 150 years ago exactly to prevent deaths in custody, is not committed to achieving this. And, I take it personally. My step father hanged himself in Bedford prison. I saw the distress it caused my mother, for years after. I know about what it means when a family member dies in custody. I will do anything, anything I can to prevent that happening to anyone else.

It is time that ministers acted in a more mature and appropriate way. I want to hear a commitment to end deaths in custody. I don’t want to hear unbecoming complaints when a charity criticises their policies because people are dying.

January 22, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Campaigns, Howard League, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons, Self-injuring, suicide

Children in solitary confinement in Feltham prison

The chief inspector of prisons today (13 January) published an inspection report on Feltham prison which made some devastating criticisms of the way children are treated.

The Howard League legal team has a lot of contact with young people imprisoned in Feltham though our legal helpline.  Our lawyers regularly visit young people in the establishment.

On several occasions our lawyers have come away with a strong sense of the anxiety felt within the establishment, with young people and staff looking over their shoulders waiting for something violent to happen. The sense of violence is palpable.

A child, whom I shall call Peter (not his real name) who has been in Feltham for almost a year recently told one of our lawyers that he has been subject to a restricted regime for the majority of time, he has been banged up (alone in his cell) for 23.5 hours a day. He has nothing to do in his cell: he struggles to read and only has a radio. He has only been allowed to attend education for one day in his whole time there. He feels unable to manage his emotions and finds being banged up all day just makes these difficulties even harder.  Even though our lawyers have been in contact with Peter for some time about other issues, it was only very recently that he revealed that he has been living like this for so long.  Presumably he felt there was nothing that anybody could do about it.

Our lawyers regularly come into contact with children and young adults who have been isolated, either in the segregation unit or on the wings for significant periods of time.

Last November we alerted the local children’s safeguarding board to our concerns following an increasing number of children in conditions of isolation. We have had no response.

The inspector’s report found:

  • Most boys had limited time unlocked, but for a significant minority (26%) it could be an hour a day (some as little as 30 minutes) and this amounted to solitary confinement. Most boys spent about 7 hours out of their cell on weekdays.
  • Attendances at activities was too low and absences often occurred for unjustified reasons.
  • The number of fights and assaults had reduced since the last inspection but violence was still higher than elsewhere. There had been 262 fights and assaults in the six months before the inspection compared with over 300 over the same period in 2013. This included 79 assaults on staff.
  • A significant amount of the conflict was gang-related. 26% of the children were being managed at the time of the inspection were either on restricted regimes or ‘keep apart’ lists. 48 gangs were represented in Feltham A at the time of the inspection.
  • Use of force had increased dramatically – the rate over the previous six months was 79% higher than the same period at the last inspection.
  • The number of adjudications had risen very sharply to an average of 126 a month, most arising from acts or threats of violence. Inspectors note that “this heavy use of formal disciplinary procedures, designed for use with adults, added to the proliferation of institutional responses to poor behaviour”.
  • The number of self-harm incidents had reduced, but the management of these cases was just adequate, and too many boys in crisis were left locked up for too long with not enough to do.
  • Apart from on Curlew unit, all boys were locked in their cells for meals, despite the fact that many boys had requested to dine out and there were communal dining tables on the units and outside.
  • Staff were praised as ‘a staff group who were working very hard to deal with a significant number of very troubled young people. For the most part they seemed to be doing this in a calm, patient and sometimes courageous way’. Staff shortages and aspects of the restricted regime reduced contact time, but inspectors observed a generally good group of staff doing their best.

It’s complicated.  It is clear from the contact the legal team has with the prison that many staff and young people alike feel unsafe.  Our team comes across staff who clearly do care about the children and try their best in a very difficult situation but the sheer size of the institution, the huge number of boys, poor facilities and lack of staff means that Feltham hasn’t worked properly for 30 years.

January 13, 2015 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

Rude and aggressive policing

I had an altercation with a police officer on Saturday. It wasn’t much, nothing really to make a fuss about, but, it was the first interaction with a police officer I have had in more than a decade (as a citizen, obviously I deal with police all the time professionally). And it did not go well.

I was in my local pub with my friends. One is a military historian of some repute, another an accountant, one works in publishing and another runs a small gardening business. It was not a busy night and my local pub has a mixed clientele with a few older regulars who sit quietly at the bar most nights.

I suddenly noticed a man, quite a large imposing man in a red jumper swearing and threatening to assault the landlord. He was threatening to hit the landlord, and spit at him, and he was streaming expletives. We all went quiet and the men in my group were apprehensive as they said they feared if he did get violent they would be expected to step in to protect the landlord.

The landlord is a very gentle and calm man and has run the pub for years with no trouble. He called the police.

Now the man was being threatening, but there was only one of him. So I was a little surprised when eight police officers piled into the pub from a couple of vans and cars.

They escorted the man outside and we could see that he was calming down and he walked away. The next surprise was the police didn’t bother to come back into the pub to explain what action they had taken but just piled back into the van ready to drive off.

I went outside and asked what had happened. I was anticipating some reassurance that the man had left and we would be safe and they would keep an eye out. The officer closest to me was reasonably polite but the officer driving the van was just plain rude and aggressive. He told me to go home if I was worried, he threatened the landlord, he was abusive and uncivil.

I felt his behaviour mirrored that of the man in the pub. If a police officer is that rude to a sober, middle class, white, middle-aged woman, goodness only knows how he would behave with someone else.

I hope I don’t have to have any other contact with the Met police as a citizen ever again.

December 17, 2014 · Frances Crook · 6 Comments
Posted in: anti-social behaviour, Police

Books For Prisoners: Not a good week for the Ministry of Justice

It has not been a good week for the Ministry of Justice. On Friday it lost a judicial review that overturned its ban on books for prisoners, and on the Monday it had to pretend it had never banned journalists from attending a Howard League fundraising lunch. The ministry has become known for a mixture of ineptitude and vindictiveness.

The Howard League launched a campaign to allow books and other essentials to be sent in to prisoners following a ban introduced by the Ministry of Justice. The full story of the campaign is on our website and so I won’t go over it here. But, we did gain the support of top writers and it was a world media furore, making our justice system look ludicrous.

For years the charity has held fundraising events that are designed to educate people about prison issues, a key part of our charitable objectives. We were pleased to link with the Clink restaurant inside Brixton, to hold a fundraising lunch hosted by the High Sheriff of London. People made donations to our work and we gathered a glittering array of supporters, members, donors and some media types.

A couple of days before the event we heard that no journalists would be allowed to attend. So, we told them, and they got a little annoyed. Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, emailed and Ian Hislop phoned the Secretary of State to complain, several times.

All of a sudden the decision was reversed. It had, apparently, all been a misunderstanding. So we had a very convivial lunch. Silly Ministry of Justice.

December 5, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Howard League, Inside prisons, Prisons, Rehabilitation

Don’t blame the messengers: Prisons are in meltdown.

The Ministry of Justice has published several press statements explicitly criticising the Howard League and I want to put the record straight.

Comments from ministers have disputed our claim that prisons are understaffed and overcrowded and that conditions have deteriorated.

First of all, the facts. How on earth would we know how many prison officers were working in each prison and the exact reduction in numbers unless the Ministry told us? We have only used official figures. So the statistics are robust and it is the case that ministers have overseen a 41 per cent cut in the number of front line prison staff.

Secondly, ministers criticise us for highlighting concerns raised by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and Independent Monitoring Boards about the sad state of prisons. The Inspector is appointed by the Queen to be her eyes and ears and the IMBs are appointed by the Justice Secretary to report directly to him on what is happening in prisons. Brixton IMB published its report on 11 November and the headline said that progress was hampered by “Government policies”. The following day the report from the Inspectorate on Elmley prison said that – and I am going to draw out concerns at length because it illustrates the seriousness of the state of prisons:

Staffing shortages and impact on regime

  • At the heart of the prison’s problems was a very restricted and unpredictable regime. Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day. Inspectors witnessed many examples of prisoners being turned away from education and work because prison officers were not available for supervision.
  • Almost 200 men were unemployed and they routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells.
  • During a roll check in the middle of the core day prior to any regime cancellations, about 46% of prisoners were locked in their cells.
  • Ofsted judged the limited activity that was on offer as inadequate in every area.
  • Much of the work was very mundane and the excessive 200 prisoners employed on domestic tasks were not kept fully occupied.
  • To get a job, prisoners needed basic levels of English and maths – about 30% of the population needed assistance to reach this level but there was insufficient provision to meet the need.
  • Only half of the offender supervisor posts were filled and these staff were frequently redeployed to other duties in the prison. One of the offender supervisors had 47 high-risk cases, none of whom she had seen in the last six to eight months.
  • Lack of association time meant that prisoners found it difficult to use the phone to maintain contact with their families and work to support prisoners in maintaining positive family relationships was very limited. Visiting times were disrupted by staff shortages and there was little recognition of the difficulties visitors faced due to the prison’s isolated location. At the time of the inspection it was hard to see how the prison would be ready for its new function as a resettlement prison.
  • Library and gym access was severely restricted. Many prisoners said that they had not been able to visit the library for many months.

Self-harm, violence and riots

  • The overall number of fights and assaults had increased by 60% over the past year and the trend was upwards.
  •  Over the previous 11 months there had been 11 acts of concerted indiscipline when prisoners had refused to return to their cells.
  • More than half of prisoners told inspectors they had felt unsafe at some time.
  • The first night centre was an unstable and frightening environment with a toxic mix of new prisoners and others who had been in trouble elsewhere in the prison.
  • Inspectors witnessed vulnerable prisoners being abused without staff intervention.
  • The number of self-harm incidents had increased and there had been five self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection in 2012.
  • Inspectors found one example of a man who had been identified as at risk, who had a history of self-harm and whose mother had died three weeks earlier but who had not had the required initial assessment for almost four days. Staff told us this was not unprecedented.
  •  One in 10 prisoners told us they had developed a drug problem in the prison.

Overcrowding and physical condition

  • The prison is very overcrowded, at the time of the inspection, it held 1,252 men, well above its certified normal accommodation of 985.
  • Almost 200 prisoners were held three to a cell designed for two and 416 prisoners were doubled up in single cells. Many cells were poorly ventilated, very warm in the week of the inspection and had inadequately screened toilets.
  • Prisoners told us they had difficulty obtaining cleaning materials and managers explained this was a consequence of budget restrictions.
  • There was a major problem with bird droppings inside the buildings which were evident in many communal areas and on floors, hand rails and stairwells.


  • Management of medicines was very poor, and this created serious risks of prisoners receiving the wrong dose at the wrong time and that the trading or theft of prescribed medicines would lead to trouble in the prison as a whole.

The report on Elmley prison follows reports in the last three months that show similar problems in Doncaster (run by Serco), Glen Parva (where teenagers have taken their own lives), Wandsworth, Cookham Wood (holds children), Altcourse (run by G4S), Gartree, Wymott, Swaleside, Chelmsford, Isis, Hindley (young adults), Preston, Ranby, Birmingham (G4S), Winchester and Wormwood Scrubs.

This is a public service in meltdown.

I have to say to ministers that the Howard League is only repeating the findings of official inspectors and monitors. Don’t blame the messengers, look at the problem, it is of your creation and it is your responsibility.

The very day the Elmley inspection report was published another man died in the prison, taking the toll to seven deaths this year.

People are taking their own lives and others are dying by natural causes because there simply are not the staff to help them with a heart attack or life-threatening emergency. The responsibility lies with the decision makers.

November 14, 2014 · Frances Crook · 4 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Howard League, Overcrowding, Prisons, Public Services

Our concerns about new Ministry of Justice measures to handle prisoners on their recall into custody

Thousands of people released from prison on fixed term licences are returned to prison each year at the request of their probation officers. The system allows for standard and emergency recalls straight back to prison with no consideration by a court. The reason for this is to ensure that the public can be protected. Nobody can object to that. But, nor, is it right or cost effective that people should be detained a moment longer than necessary or released at the end of their sentence without any supervision because nobody is able to make the judgement call that they are safe to be released again.

For the past forty years, a huge proportion of these cases have been reviewed by the Parole Board and many are re-released safely on licence. It is not unusual for a person to have been recalled following an arrest for a further offence which turns out to lead nowhere or on the strength of an unfounded allegation.

It was therefore a surprise to discover that three working days before it was due to be debated in the House of Lords, the government laid amendments to Part 1 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill introducing a whole new scheme for fixed term recalls to prison. They provide for the use of ‘recall adjudicators’ in determinate recall cases – any case where a prisoner serving a fixed term sentence is recalled to custody and falls to be considered for re-release on licence.

As Lord Faulks admitted in the House on 20 October 2014, there remains ‘unknown detail about the precise operation, impact and cost of the new model’. Nothing is known about this scheme other than that recall adjudicators will have ‘significant criminal justice experience’. There is nothing in the proposed amendments to say whether recall adjudicators would be impartial or independent, trained professionals or lay people; whether hearings would be ‘on the papers’ or oral, what powers recall adjudicators would have to require evidence and information or whether legal aid would be available for prisoners subject to it.

Yet it is quite clear that if passed, the amendments will enable the Secretary of State to hive off a section of work currently completed by the Parole Board and will provide the Secretary of State a wide discretion to set up a new scheme without further debate or discussion in parliament. The provisions are widely drafted and raise a number of concerns.

There is no provision for the process to be judicial and no provision for legal aid. Without safeguards, there is a real risk that these changes could see a vast increase in the prison population.

The work itself is not disappearing and on the government’s own analysis may well increase considerably as it rolls out its Transforming Rehabilitation programme and as a result of further aspects the Bill that will lower the test for recall to release from the risk of harm to the public to non-compliance with licence conditions. While the proposal provides the option for the parole board not to have to complete this work, there is nothing in this proposal that will result in a reduction in recalls. If the parole board does undertake the work, there is no point in introducing the scheme on the basis that it would lessen the burden on the parole board. If the parole board does not undertake this work, there will be the increased cost of recruiting and training new adjudicators and devising a new scheme.

Most frightening of all is the sheer disregard for the Parliamentary process demonstrated by the decision to present a scheme to peers for endorsement without any detail as to what it will involve or the consequences just three working days before report stage. At best, recall adjudicators will require all the financial and administrative costs of a new scheme. At worst they could result in the need for thousands more prison places in a system bursting at the seams.

October 21, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Overcrowding, Prisons, Probation, Rehabilitation

Secure college proposals put girls at risk

On Friday I wrote to the Justice Secretary to express my serious concern about government plans to incarcerate girls in a secure college for children. The story ran in a number of newspapers yesterday. Here is the letter in full:

Dear Mr Grayling

I am writing to you directly to raise serious concerns regarding the plans to incarcerate girls in the proposed ‘secure college’.

The Howard League has years of experience of working with girls in the penal system and in custody in particular.

We have delivered services to help juvenile girls for several years when they were being detained in Bullwood Hall prison with a worker based in the prison supporting the girls through their sentence, providing practical help and advice.

Our legal team has represented more than a hundred girls advocating for them and securing improved conditions inside and on release.

You will no doubt be aware that our legal team secured a public inquiry into the case of SP to investigate the poor treatment she was subjected to in New Hall and Low Newton prisons. Even though she was known to be extremely vulnerable and was attempting suicide so seriously as to fill her cell with blood, she was placed in effective solitary confinement. It was only through the intervention of Howard League lawyers that she was transferred to a mental hospital. We expect public hearings next year.

The Howard League provides support to the All Part Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, chaired by Baroness Corston. Last year the APPG held a year long inquiry into girls in the penal system, hearing oral evidence from senior practitioners and experts and gathering written evidence about the routes into the penal system and the treatment of girls in custody. The notes from meetings and the published briefings are on the Howard League website.

We have commissioned, conducted and published research on girls in the penal system from top academics. This has included research on the criminalisation of girl victims of sexual abuse written by Professor Jo Phoenix. This is obviously a sensitive issue of intense public concern and our evidence that girls are inappropriately brought into the criminal justice system when they are in fact victims of the most awful sexual abuse and violence is borne out by the events in Rotherham.

We recently completed a five year participation programme funded by the Big Lottery engaging with young people who were in, or had been in, penal custody. We worked alongside many girls and young women who were in secure units, secure training centres and prisons and who had recently been released from these institutions. We gathered first hand testimony about their experiences, treatment and its impact on their well-being and life chances.  We would be pleased to pass on this information as it represents a unique reservoir of knowledge about how girls should be treated in custody.

You will know that we have been working with police services round the country to support their success at reducing child arrests and we are particularly gratified at the reduction in the arrest of girls.

Finally, our staff visit establishments detaining girls and community schemes dealing with girls who are in contact with the criminal justice system so we can learn from the first-hand experience of both professional staff and the young women themselves.

The Howard League is the leading authority on the discrete needs of girls in the criminal justice system.

There are currently only 45 girls in custody in England and Wales. The evidence shows that girls in the criminal justice system have disproportionately horrific backgrounds of rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and exploitation. We contend that placing a handful of girls into an institution with hundreds of teenage boys will put the girls at risk of sexual assault and exploitation. More subtly than this, it is not just about the levels of violence – sexual or otherwise – it is that girls cannot flourish because there will be so few of them in an institution designed by men for men.

Further, it is a matter of great concern that the only concession offered by the government is that the complex needs of these girls would be acknowledged by creating a mother and baby unit. A prison within a prison, for children with children. It appears to be an admission of failure from the start that the girls’ safety will be so precarious that they could even fall pregnant.

Yesterday, I visited Clayfields Secure Children’s Home that shows what can be achieved with some of the most troubled and challenging children with the right resources, management and ethos. This establishment is the antithesis of what is proposed in the secure prison.

First and foremost, any secure institution is where children will live and should resemble a home. The evidence shows that small, intensively-staffed environments keep children safe and address their behaviour. In such a well-resourced environment, and with a balanced ratio between girls and boys, it can be possible to mix the genders in a safe way. Secure children’s homes already provide this for the handful of children who require custody: we do not need to reinvent the wheel, we should invest money into what is already working.

The proposals to imprison girls in the ‘secure college’ are the antithesis of good practice. If this plan were to go ahead it would create serious, unprecedented, safeguarding risks.

I hope that you acknowledge that this issue is severe enough to warrant your attention and urge you to reconsider this ill-thought through and dangerous plan.

I would be happy to provide any further information or meet with you to discuss the matter.

Yours sincerely


Frances Crook

September 29, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

The prison crisis is a question of evidence, not party politics

Yesterday Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, wrote an article claiming that prisons were not in crisis and that suicides behind bars were merely unfortunate but, crucially, entirely beyond his control.

On the same day he published a report by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) into Wandsworth prison that was devastating in its criticism of every aspect of the prison linked to staff cuts, that exposed people being unsafe, overcrowding, insanitary conditions and deaths. The IMB is appointed by him to tell him what is happening in prisons. It is the latest in a string of reports that reveal the crisis in prisons.

Mr Grayling claims that education is being increased, but there is uncertainty over education in 12 London prisons as the provider withdrew from the contract after payments were reduced when staff cuts meant that prisoners were not being escorted to classes. Education in prisons holding children has not increased or improved.

Recent reports by HM chief inspector of prisons reveal prisons that are dangerous, dirty and where activity is rare. Wormwood Scrubs, Chelmsford, Isis, Hindley, Doncaster, Preston, Ranby, Birmingham and Gartree are all overcrowded with prisoners lying idle in filthy cells. The only report that had a ray of light was on a small special unit for 50 boys that has more than 70 staff, so no wonder it can cope. The other prisons have faced staff cuts of more than one-third.

It is worth taking one prison as an example to show what things are really like. The Wandsworth report illustrates the problems faced by prisons. The prison holds 1,600 adult men despite only being certified to hold 943. Three years ago it had 427 prison officers; by June this year the number had been cut to 260. The prison was built in 1851 and the wings are Victorian.

The IMB says: “Staff reductions have had a detrimental effect across the prison; restricted residential activity, availability of and attendance at work and education, stretched legal services, reduced gym sessions, changed food provision, cancelled outpatient appointments, problems with property, insufficient Mandatory Drug Testing and reduced library attendance.”

The prison has traditionally held only adult men but recently teenagers have been detained there and this has led to a more volatile environment with an increase in the use of force by staff. Staff are not trained to deal with teenagers.

Three men died in the prison in the last year; one hanged himself. There were 536 known cases of men who were suicidal. Violent incidents increased by one-third.

There is a shortage of activity places so 500 prisoners are locked in their cells all day, even if the rest are only allowed to go to activities part time. The Secretary of State claimed that more prisoners were working but the IMB in Wandsworth says: “The Board takes the view that the Government’s policy to get all prisoners working is not supported by the resources necessary to make this a reality.”

This is one prison but the pattern is repeated across the estate. Six prisoners took their own lives in six days a couple of weeks ago. Greg Revell was only 18 when he was left alone in his cell overnight in Glen Parva and hanged himself in June. Most prisons have less than a handful of staff on duty at night so even if a teenager cries for help there is no one to comfort them. Greg had mental health problems and entered the prison with red welts round his neck where he had attempted suicide. Greg’s mother is grieving for her child.

The Howard League published figures showing the staff cuts and the Ministry of Justice tried to claim that they were untrue, until it had to admit that the statistics were their own. We have up-to-date figures to show that staff cuts have continued.

The closure or re-roling of 18 prisons, cramming those prisoners into already overcrowded jails, sending more people to prison every week and staff cuts have created a perfect storm. There have been few riots because men are locked in their cells most of the time. As one prison officer said to me, caged young men come out fighting. This accounts for increased assaults and suicides.

The Secretary of State should read the reports from his inspectors and the watchdogs he has appointed. Prisons have deteriorated under his management and he is responsible for the outcomes. It is not a question of party politics and it is cheap to pretend so. It is a question of evidence.

September 19, 2014 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons

World Suicide Prevention Day

Fifty men, women and teenage boys have taken their own lives in prison this year in England and Wales. This is a significant increase on recent years when reduced overcrowding and increased focus on suicide prevention was saving lives.

I was shocked to hear the Secretary of State for Justice be so complacent about the deaths of prisoners yesterday when questioned by MPs.

There is a clear correlation between people being locked up for longer and longer in stinking cells with nothing to do, hardly ever getting outside into the fresh air and a lack of purpose to their lives, and an increase in violence and suicide.

A few weeks ago the Howard League published a briefing showing that the closure and re-roling of 18 prisons and consequent transfer of that population to other jails has crammed people into already overcrowded prisons. At the same time the number of prison officers has been cut by about a third. To complete the perfect storm, the prison population has risen inexorably. There are consequences and it is disingenuous of politicians to try to shirk responsibility for their policies.

Deaths by suicide in prison became a matter of national concern in the 1990s and there were new measures put in place to support people in crisis. It was recognised that the fact of prison, the institution and its nature, was itself a contributory factor. Ministers established a board to oversee changes, bringing together experts from the voluntary sector and operational chiefs from the NHS, prison and police services. For a few years the reducing numbers of prisoners, increased budgets for education and focus on getting prisoners to work had an impact and the death rate fell.

Things changed a couple of years ago with the combination of increased numbers and budget cuts. There simply are not enough staff to get people to health care appointments, out of their cells to go to education classes, for a shower or a phone call home. Inspection report after inspection report has revealed the horror of prison life today, for staff and for inmates.

When an 18-year-old with known mental health problems and who had the red welts on his neck of a previous suicide attempt takes his own life on his second night in prison, it should be an issue of shame to the secretary of state, and indeed, to the nation.

September 10, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Inside prisons, Mental health, Overcrowding, Prisons, suicide

Wormwood Scrubs, Glen Parva, Isis, Hindley… Prisons are in meltdown

Penal policy is political in the best sense of the word. It is about the safety of the people and how we should respond to those amongst our community who violate the law. But, it is also political in the worst sense of the word as it is a weapon of party politics. The last four years has seen both of these in chiaroscuro.

Today a report on Wormwood Scrubs prison illustrates the desperate state of prisons, but more about that later.

At the early years of the Coalition’s term of government from 2010 to 2012, the intention was to reduce the use of prison by curtailing the power of the magistrates courts to remand to custody and abolish the indeterminate sentence for public protection.  The second aim was for fewer people in prison and slowly the numbers reduced by around 3,000 at any one time. The third aim was to get prisoners busy with a focus on work and training.

From 2012 this trajectory was abruptly abandoned and instead the newly appointed secretary of state for justice concentrated on encouraging punishment by introducing restricted regimes in prisons and ending the pressure to reduce prison sentences and remands. Eighteen prisons were closed and staff cut by more than 30%.

I have never seen a public service deteriorate so rapidly and so profoundly.

I know my prisons. I have been to almost all the prisons in England and Wales, many of them several times, and I have spent a long time in each prison talking to staff and inmates and looking at facilities. I have visited prisons in the US, South America and across Eastern and Western Europe.

In 2011 I visited 10 prisons to see for myself the improvements being made at that time. Declining numbers and governors using their initiative resulted in prisoners being out of their cells for longer, employed on recycling schemes, manufacturing and taking education classes. It was not perfect, but it was all going in the right direction.

In the last two years prisons have gone into meltdown. Since June inspection reports on Glen Parva, Isis, Hindley, Doncaster, Preston, Ranby, Gartree, Winchester and Bedford prisons have shown a pattern of inactivity, violence, lethargy and filth. Wormwood Scrubs is one of the biggest prisons in the country and today has one of the worst reports I have ever read.

The death rate has soared with suicides of teenage boys a particular tragedy. Deaths from what are called “natural causes” have increased so that people are dying when they might have been saved.

A new category of death is being recorded. Drugs are so rife in prisons that people are using a cocktail of prescribed drugs and illicit drugs that are sometimes lethal.

The few staff who are left cannot be blamed for the dire state of prisons, responsibility lies in the policies that create the crisis.

The toxic mix of closing 18 prisons and redistributing the prisoners to already overcrowded jails has tipped many over the safe limit. Courts and parole boards react to political pressures so the number of people sent to prison on remand rose and the sentences got longer and the number released on parole went down whilst recalls went up. Staff cuts reduced front line prison officers by more than 30 per cent.

This means, on the landings, that people are on restricted regimes and not getting out of their dark, smelly, unventilated cells that are the size of a small cubicle and contain a toilet they have to share.

I hope that prisons become a highly political issue and that people in this country see that stinking prisons are not serving them well. It’s not about party politics, it’s about human politics.


September 3, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons